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Hard Data Won't Change Educational Beliefs

The debate over how to improve educational quality for all students in this country is predicated on the assumption that empiricism rather than ideology will eventually prevail. But a recent op-ed in the Boston Globe by Joe Keohane calls that belief into question ("How facts backfire," July 11). "Facts don't necessarily have the power to change our mind," he wrote. "In fact, quite the opposite." Keohane goes on to cite a series of studies in 2005 and 2006 by researchers at the University of Michigan showing that facts can actually make misinformation stronger.

The reasons for this counterintuitive finding range from simple defensiveness to avoidance of cognitive dissonance. But whatever the cause, they have direct relevance to efforts now underway to turn around failing schools. The best example is the campaign being waged by the 10-year-old Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The latest issue of Bloomberg Businessweek has a cover story detailing the thinking behind the foundation's distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars toward this goal since its inception and for its plans to spend $3 billion more in the next five to seven years on educational reform ("Bill Gates' School Crusade," July 15).

What emerges from the reportage is that Bill Gates does not like to be confused by evidence. In 2000, for example, he doled out hundreds of millions to make high schools smaller in the stubborn belief that student body size is crucial to student achievement. Gates subsequently discovered to his chagrin that students at small high schools, for example, were more likely to graduate than their peers at big high schools, but they did no better on standardized tests. Never one to let the facts get in the way of his personal convictions, he is now betting that teacher quality is the solution. The foundation is investing $290 million over the next seven years in the Tampa, Memphis and Pittsburgh school districts in the mistaken belief that measuring student gains on standardized tests is the key to educational quality.

It apparently makes no difference to Gates that this strategy is not nearly as straightforward as he thinks. Cheating by educators and narrowing of the curriculum, for example, have already been well documented in connection with high-stakes tests. Nevertheless, Gates wants to replace underperforming teachers (based on progress on student test scores) with effective teachers (based on the same metric). He is convinced that teachers ranked in the top 25 percent for four consecutive years will be enough to close the black-white achievement gap. He offers no credible evidence to support his assertion, but that doesn't undermine his influence.

That's because big money has a way of making itself heard over hard data. In today's recession, school districts are so desperate to avoid layoffs and make other cuts to their programs that when the Gates Foundation or other financial powerhouses come calling it's hard to resist doing their bidding. Adding to their enormous clout are their friends in the Obama administration. Together, they are a formidable team.

Whether they will ever be open to other views about turning around failing schools is doubtful. Ideology is notoriously resistant to alteration even in the face of overwhelming evidence. This observation is true whether it applies to the richest man in America, the man in the White House or the man in the street.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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